The Brown Boi Project (BBP) works to change the way that communities of color talk about gender—creating more space for young people of color to live more whole and authentic lives. Last summer, we launched Summer of Brown Boi, a road tour to connect with people of color (LGBT and straight) across the country to bring these vital conversations to communities everywhere. Through our partnership with the California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities we took the tour to Fresno. Looking out across the room full of young people of color it was clear that this was the beginning of something powerful. For the Brown Bois in the room who grew up in Fresno, returning to lead this work was deeply personally and transformative.
Fresno: pit stop to Manzanar, Dust Bowl diaspora, Yokut requiem, hidden Latino labor economies, Hmong refugee relocation site, and my place of birth. I grew into myself in a town that was not properly equipped to respond to the forms of difference I would come to embody, or the difference of so many others. Ambiguity of gender, sexuality, and race were daily realities I had to contend with as a young person – as a mixed-race child of Mexican and white descent in a place with some of the highest levels of discrimination against Latinos in the country, both presently and historically, there were few options other than to pass: pass as not the ‘wrong’ kind of Mexican, pass as properly gendered, pass as straight, pass as obedient.
My body, my skin tone, my misfit tendencies, and my strong opinions were constantly outing me to those around me. Outing me as not-white, despite all attempts to fit in through academic success. Outing me as not girl-enough, with a musculature and mannerisms that defied cultural ideals of femininity. Outing me as intelligent and perceptive of subtle dynamics of power. Growing up, my appearance and affect felt like constant sources of betrayal to my need to pass for safety as I learned to navigate spaces of learning. What was especially difficult was having few role models to help me make sense of my experience, and few peers who were able to relate to what I was going through. Instead of thinking about building a life in Fresno, I dreamed of the day when I could shed my old skin, and learn to live in a new one, freed from the forms of confinement we usually experience when we are so contoured by the place we come from, either by giving into it or from gritting our teeth and pushing back.
Had there been an educational framework to help me make sense of my reality, I believe my experience would have been far different. California public schools have some of the largest discrepancies between percentages of teachers and students of color, particularly for Latino students, who now comprise the largest group of public school students in this state. Additionally, because of the forms of historical forgetting that are constantly condoned in Fresno, students are not provided with the hospitality needed to truly listen to others whose experiences may be so different from their own.
Today, my community work and scholarship focus on how to create teaching tools to work with marginalized groups, including immigrants, students of color, and queer and transgender students. Rather than waiting until people go to college – which is not a large percentage of the population in Fresno – I believe that we should give students the ability to relate to one another more deeply from their first educational and social encounters, and to feel as though their home need not become a foreign place to them, as it had been for me. I don’t believe that someone should have to leave home to find one – we should support one another as we find places where we can fit, even if it isn’t always perfectly comfortable. Building these types of critical spaces of engagement in public school settings is so important, and depends on our ability to support teachers, students, and administrators as they experiment with new forms of community.
For me, part of what has made life sustainable has been the vast network of community workers, advocates, and friends I have met since leaving Fresno. Through the Brown Boi Project, I’ve developed incredible relationships with my fellow Bois, both in the Bay Area, where I now live, and across the country. It has been incredible to learn more about how people fight back against oppressive systems of poverty, racial discrimination, homophobia and transphobia all across the country. Without this network of support, I fear the atrophy that would have overtaken my imagination, and I fear the ways it would still be difficult to expand my ideas of justice and liberation, so that my own experiences aren’t the only ones foregrounded in the work I am doing. The Brown Boi Project has provided me with an incredible opportunity to return to Fresno on my own terms, sharing the work I have developed through my time away, and to learn new ways to relate to a place that had a big impact in shaping who I am today.
The work of gender and racial justice, which is at the core of the Brown Boi Project, is incredibly important, and not exclusively for people who are struggling because of vast institutional and interpersonal imbalances of power, imbalances that are hugely exploited for the benefit of the few; everyone stands to benefit from engaging conversations about privilege and oppression, whether or not they are as of yet fully aware of its potential impacts. We need to share this work everywhere we go because when we push back against systems of oppression, we make our communities a little bit more dynamic and open for everyone, so that we all have safe and supportive places to call home. Moving forward, this year, we are taking the Summer of Brown Boi to twelve cities across the country. It is deeply humbling and moving to have the opportunity to continue this work.